“Ukrainians will not let the reform wind down,” - Vyacheslav Nehoda on five years of decentralisation

The presidential election campaign somewhat overshadowed other important processes in the country. Meanwhile, 1 April marked the beginning of five years of decentralisation in Ukraine. This reform is called one of the most successful, but at the same time, it is accompanied by a squall of criticism. For explanations, Opinion appealed to Vyacheslav Nehoda, First Deputy Minister of Regional Development, Construction, Housing and Communal Services of Ukraine.

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Mr. Nehoda, the starting point for decentralisation is the Cabinet’s resolution dated 1 April 2014 On Approving the Concept of Reforming Local Self-Government and Territorial Organisation of Power in Ukraine. What has been done in five years?

The first results of the reform even surpassed expectations. Despite the enormous resistance of the enemies, skeptics’ estimates, it became the most successful long before its completion. The final assessment can be made, when we manage to fully implement the tasks. What has been done since the start of the reform? In short, something that has never been done in Ukraine before. Even international partners admit that Ukrainian decentralisation case can become one of the most successful in Europe.

The concept you mentioned has clearly outlined the problems to be solved by the reform. For example, excessive fragmentation of territorial hromadas and, as a consequence, the failure to fully exercise the powers of local self-government bodies. Imagine a hromada with 50, 100 or 200 mostly elderly residents, since young people left because of the lack of work. The budgets of a large part of local self-government were deeply subsidised and the funds were mainly directed to pay salaries of the local council employees. Where could they find money to repair worn-out infrastructure, provide high-quality social services, ensure sustainable development of hromadas? And the level of management on the ground was much to be desired. What had to be done? Should everything be left as it was, as some political demagogues shouted, since, according to them, the reform kills the village? Of course not. It would be better if the reform was carried out immediately with the restoration of Ukraine’s independence, but this did not happen, the problems only accumulated. And a huge step forward was the coordinated position of all branches of power – the President, the Government and the Parliament – on the need for the implementation of the reform of local self-government and territorial organisation of power and decentralisation of power and resources. Therefore, the results are good.

Fiscal decentralisation became the first step in implementing the Concept. Local budgets grew by 3.5 times – from UAH 68.6 billion in 2014 to UAH 234 billion in 2018! Excluding transfers. A huge resource opened up opportunities for local self-government to provide proper care for the development of territories and not to beg funds from ministries, administrations. And then an issue of effective and responsible management of such a resource was raised. Let’s return to a hromada with a population of 100 people: is the local council’s apparatus capable of managing the budget, for example, in the amount of 10 million, education, healthcare, and social sphere? To begin with, one must be able to form a budget, not to mention the need for quality projects and development programmes. Such hromadas did not have the proper capacity and could not work effectively, since all their experience was mostly about certificate issuance.

Therefore, the Government started the process of municipal consolidation – formation of capable hromadas, relying on the law on voluntary amalgamation of hromadas. But it was not enough to pass the law – it is has to be executed. And for this, we had to explain both to local self-government and hromada residents, why the reform is needed, why amalgamated hromadas need to be formed, and what benefits these hromadas will receive. It is important that people understand the essence of the reform, since their support and conscious decisions on amalgamation depended on this. Therefore, we created special units in each oblast with assistance of international donor organisations. At first, they were the offices of reforms, and then they were transformed into local government development centres – a network of experts, specialists in finance, local self-government, spatial development, etc. They visit hromadas, carry out explanatory work, provide expert assistance on all amalgamation procedures. And the process moved off. More than 4,000 local councils amalgamated in 884 AHs with greater powers and resources for their implementation.

In addition to funds, the state transfers agricultural land to the level of capable hromadas. Already 646 AHs have received 1450,8 thousand hectares of such land into communal owhership, and this process will continue. It is also a powerful resource for the their territories’ development.

The reform refuted all the rumors that decentralisation would destroy the village, close schools and health posts, that people would have to go for dozens of kilometres to get various certificates. Since if some schools were closed somewhere, that happened only because there were just several pupils in the class, and under such conditions they could not get competitive education. Instead, a new educational space, hub schools with modern technical equipment and qualified personnel are formed. Teachers were given the opportunity to pass trainings, receive higher salary and get comfortable working conditions, and pupils, in addition to properly equipped classrooms and modern educational appliances, got the opportunity to engage in various interest clubs, which almost did not exist in small villages. They much more eagerly attend such schools and, of course, get better education. Starting in 2016, 778 hub schools and about 1300 branches have been created. 331 hub schools have been established in AHs.

According to the President’s rural healthcare development programme, a well-established primary healthcare network in rural areas was clearly calculated – 4223 outpatient clinics and more than five hundred newly constructed ones. About 30 such outpatient clinics have already been put into operation. By June, 382 others will be opened. Telemedicine services in rural areas are being introduced, with the help of which a family doctor can contact and consult a particular physician in the rayon or oblast. The state purchases service cars for rural clinics.

As far as certificates are concerned, first of all, they are issued by village starostas. Secondly, modern administrative service centres are being established in hromadas, besides, they provide remote workplaces for administrators all over hromada or implement a so-called mobile ASC. 125 such centres were created in AHs. And this year not less than one hundred of them are planned to be established. Hromadas are supported by the U-LEAD with Europe Programme. Over the period of the reform implementation, there were no complaints about problematic issuance of certificates identified. On the contrary, with the help of the ASC, it was possible not only to bring services closer to people (has anyone ever thought that even a foreign passport could be ordered and received in your village or town with no need to travel to rayon or oblast centre?), but also significantly improve the quality of these services.

And what could not be done and why?

If something did not succeed at once, it is a temporary situation. In the end, the reform is not yet completed. Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman initiated a new phase of decentralisation. His firm stance is that it must become irreversible, the formation of capable hromadas and transfer of powers and resources should be completed no later than by mid-2020. It is necessary that all people living in villages and cities can benefit from decentralisation, have the same opportunities for self-fulfillment and comfortable living conditions.

Therefore, a lot of work is ahead. A new territorial basis for the activities of the authorities at the level of hromadas and rayons has to be approved. We must complete the transfer of executive powers to local self-government bodies. It is necessary to clearly delineate the powers between different levels of governing bodies and local self-government. The tasks for the nearest future are to ensure the proportionality of the volume of financial resources with the new local self-government powers and to standardise expenditures on sectoral delegated powers. The new stage of decentralisation also involves bringing the system of service in local self-government bodies in line with modern standards. It is also necessary to distinguish between local self-government servants and elected officials. And, of course, we must ensure that the level of professional competence of local self-government employees is increased.

Proceeding from the fact that effective local self-government is based on three pillars – powers, resources and responsibilities – we must make one more important step: introduce a unified state policy of supervision and control over the legality of activities of officials and local self-government bodies, as provided by the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the Constitution of Ukraine. The experience of amalgamated hromadas clearly demonstrates that we have to improve the system of elections to AH, rayon and oblast councils, election of starostas. Residents of settlements seek proportional representation in the councils of amalgamated hromadas, and the latter on their part – in rayon and oblast councils.

The Parliament has not yet approved a number of key laws, in particular, on the principles of administrative-territorial structure and changes to the law on regulation of urban development activities (regarding hromada’s right to plan its entire territory). What is the reason for the delay?

The reform will not be able to move without the necessary legislative basis. There are many more draft laws awaiting parliament’s approval. Many are in the process of preparation. But decentralisation has always had high support among MPs of this convocation. The results of the reform, mentioned above, are a special merit of the Verkhovna Rada. I would like laws to be adopted faster, but the country is concerned not only about decentralisation.

How is the process of AH formation going on: dynamics, trends, statistics?

The process has somewhat slown down. I'm talking about 2018. On the one hand, such situation is expected in light of the upcoming next local elections in 2020. On the other hand, the preliminary composition of the CEC made periodical “surprises” blocking the announcement of the first elections in AHs. And yet the martial law, introduced following the aggression of the Russian Federation, made it impossible to hold elections in 45 AHs last year. Elections took place only in 77 AHs, instead of 123, as envisaged by the CEC’s decision. Besides, some oblast state administrations blocked provision of conclusions on AH formation and submission of relevant documents to the CEC, some oblast councils also rejected perspective plans and changes to them, and rayon state administrations also mobilsed efforts against decentralisation. These and other factors did not give hromadas willing to amalgamate the confidence in support of oblast authorities, the CEC. But, for comparison, first 159 AHs were formed in 2015, one year later – another 207 AHs appeared, in 2017 – 299 AHs. In total, I would remind you that 884 AHs were established, of which 78 are waiting for the decision of the CEC to appoint the first local elections.

Those, who really wanted to amalgamate voluntarily, have already done it. There are those willing to amalgamate or join already existing AHs or cities of oblast significance, but are confronted with those, who do not see their interests in such an amalgamation.

Upcoming elections do not contribute to AH formation as well. In the end, nobody said that reform implementation would be easy. Anyway, in 2020, regular local elections will take place on a new territorial basis of hromadas. This means that from 1 January 2021, the entire Ukrainian population will live in capable hromadas. Obviously, those hromadas, that will not amalgamate voluntarily by that time, will be formed in an administrative way, since the reform cannot last forever. Moreover, the state is obliged to create the same development conditions for all. People are already asking why there was a road built, ASC opened, utility equipment bought in the neighbouring hromada, while there are no changes in their settlements? There are 96 rayons with no AH established yet, and practically nothing is changing for the better there so far. People are eager for changes, and if someone on the ground is not in a hurry to implement them, trying to preserve a post, then this situation should be soon settled by the law.

MinRegion monitors the process of decentralisation and local self-government reform on a monthly basis. The reforming process continues. The opportunities and prospects for creating new capable hromadas continue to be considered on the ground. According to the results of the survey conducted in 2018 with the support of the Council of Europe Programme “Decentralisation and Territorial Consolidation in Ukraine”, 58% of the population, compared to 19% in 2015, believe that local self-government reform is needed. And 61% of AH residents note improvement of the quality of services in hromadas.

Can presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019 and possible reformatting of power influence the further course of decentralisation?

Any democratic election will result in a partial or substantial reforming of the authorities. It is very important that the decentralisation reform continue and achieve the goals set by the Government, formulated in the Concept and in subsequent decisions of the Government and the President of Ukraine.

Is it possible to bring everything back and take away resources and powers from hromadas and local authorities? Unfortunately, so far, it is possible by introducing changes to the law. And in our recent history, we have already had the case when a large-scale centralisation gradually took place, giving the opportunity to enslave local self-government and keep it obedient. To avoid this, decentralisation achievements must be enshrined in the Constitution. It is not done by the magic wand and requires a lot of time, effort and coherent work of all government branches. But I am far from thinking that the Ukrainian people will allow someone to wind down decentralisation.

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V.Nehoda

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Opinion

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